Five Lessons Learned: The Donkey Gets Its Ass Kicked
While the Ohio saga may linger for some days, it's abundantly clear that the Democrats have suffered a devastating defeat. Bush has his mandate, the GOP owns Congress and the governorships, and the Supreme Court is only a matter of time.
Let the recriminations begin. Progressives will no doubt cite a host of factors, from Kerry's wooden personality, the unshakable flip-flopper label, the Swift Boat slanders, "voted for it before I voted against it", among others. But these are questions of tactics, not strategy. At the end of the day, Democrats must realize their party is adrift in terms of ideology, policy and branding, and that is the source of Tuesday's calamity.
Democrats need to learn five lessons from this debacle, and learn them fast:
1. Restore Credibility on National Security
John Kerry and the Democrats were never able to close the traditional gap they face on security, defense and terrorism issues. As we've argued before, the United States will need to expand its armed forces for perhaps the next decade to fight Al Qaeda globally, maintain the Iraq occupation and possibly face regional threats such as Iran and North Korea. Bush's 10 division army is not sufficient, and Kerry's proposed two new divisions likely won't be either. Rather than use the draft as a scare tactic, Democrats should embrace national service. As Perrspectives has detailed, Democrats should expand the all-volunteer army, while drafting a 250,000 person strong "Civil Defense Force" to guard broders, ports, airports, nuclear facilities and other homeland installations.
2. Compete for White Males
Democrats cannot return to the White House and reemerge as the majority party as long as they essentially write off white males. The 2004 exit polls show that Kerry was drubbed among white males (61%-38%) and beaten by Bush among white females (54%-45%). Note that Democrats have not carried a majority of the white vote since 1964 and having won over 50% of the popular vote since 1976. When national security is the preeminent issue, Democrats simply cannot count on enough of a gender gap to win national elections. Which brings us to:
3. Move Beyond Identity Politics
The Democrats unhealthy dependence on minority and young voters similarly is a recipe for defeat. While Kerry managed to maintain 90% of the African-American vote, Bush expanded his slice of the Hispanic pie to 42%. And once again, the 18-29 vote failed to make impact, constituting 17% of the electorate, a dismal statistic unchanged since 2000.
Some Democratic analysts see an "emerging Democratic majority" arising from the colaition of a socially liberal professional class combined with America's growing Hispanic and Asian populations. The numbers just don't bear this out. Democrats must begin offering Americans a better choice than the stale debate between the racism of the right and the racialism of the left. Democrats can neither support the status quo nor trigger a return to real or de facto segregation in hiring, contracting and university admissions. Ultimately, Democrats must move to a "Post Affirmative Action" politics, trading the easy work of group preferences for the hard work of investment in education and urban development, day care, class-based programs, and other more universal approaches. As we've suggested before. Democrats should le phase out affirmative action over time w hile implementing a new approach, "Open Opportunity."
4. Understand "Intensity vs Propensity" in the Culture Wars
The exit polls again make clear that the GOP has built an almost insurmountable lead among voters prioritizing "moral values." This Democratic deficit is not just a question of learning to speak about values; on many issues like abortion, the Democrats stand enjoys majority support nationally. The issue is one of intensity; for those conservative voters for whom "values" issue matter, they matter most. In 2000, this intensity helped make the South a Republican lake. In 2004, it was a major mobilizing force even in many swing states, and according to CNN exit polls, the #1 issue (22% of voters). More people may think we're right, but apparently they don't care as deeply about the stakes.
5. Branding: The Message is the Medium
Once again, the Republicans haave shown that they are the masters of a simple 1-2-3 formula for crafting winning campaigns. The GOP brand formula:
a) Articulate a clear, concise, consistent and coherent worldview. (For example, government bad, markets good, "you're either with us or with the terrorists).
b) Offer an positive, aspirational policy program in line with their worldview. The GOP policy prescriptions, from school vouchers and Social Security privatization to medical savings accounts and faith-based inititatives, are wrong and dangerous virtually across the board, but they show the GOP as a forward-looking party of ideas. (Kerry's inability to carry any income group making over $50,000 reflects this fact.)
c) Brand and message the program with simple, emotional potent sound bytes. Whether unopposable on their face ("school choice", ending the "death tax", banning "partial birth abortion") or blatant lies ("clear skies", "healthy forests"), their effectiveness cannot be doubted.
Democrats, unlike Republicans, seem not to have grasped that in an American culture with an over-supply of cable news, on demand movies, and the Internet, politics IS entertainment. With so many sources competing for the mindshare of American voters, Democrats must always remember that nothing entertains more than confrontation and conflict, and that he who speaks first, and simply, wins.